A city walker turns into a time-traveler
October is the month when people start seeing things. September still allows you to bask - just soak up the atmosphere one last time. Something brisk about October puts your system on alert, and yet it's not so cold that the winds blowing over the last of your summer tan make you close your eyes and put every message on hold except the tingle from your numbing fingers. That's November.
In October you really take notice, and the pale blue clarity of the air helps , putting every scene in sharp outline like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.
In October, in the city, you even start seeing the pieces that are no longer there.
In other months we walk through Copley Square. But only in October do we truly see, like a slide projected on a back screen, the buildings that once were part of an older Boston and now are specters of the past.
Our particular mirage is a long-vanished building of hewed brown blocks that once housed the S. S. Pierce store, a stone's throw away from the gleaming glass facades of 1984 that now house such establishments as Neiman-Marcus and a Marriott hotel.
S. S. Pierce was, as they say, a New England institution. As brown in hue inside as out, the store seemed more like a museum than a place of business. Even the clerks in their light tan smock coats acted as guides rather than salesmen.
The groceries - the very special groceries - were displayed under glass. In those days, where else could you get buckwheat flour and ginger-lime marmalade and imported biscuits?
S. S. Pierce people knew they were special. They were the best tradespeople in the best store in the best square in the best city in the world. But like the best Boston philanthropists, out of the goodness of their hearts they shared their plenty with the rest of us, at regular shopping hours, six days a week.
''Epicure'' was the word the store liked to apply to itself and its favored customers. The word appeared in S. S. Pierce advertisements and on S. S. Pierce labels. To a child at least, S. S. Pierce epicures consisted mostly of very erect great-aunts, smelling of lavender and being demanding about their cheese. How the epicure clerks deferred to them!
Undeniably, there was something a little stuffy about S. S. Pierce and the square it stood in and the old Boston it stood for. Yet a child, smelling those fresh-ground spices, looked beyond all the somber brown (and all the somber epicurean faces) and saw sailing ships, possibly with S. S. Pierce on their bows , gathering up exotic foodstuffs in Asiatic ports.
We suppose it is a child's imagination as much as an old brown building that we recapture when we see the S. S. Pierce that is no longer there.
Such memories of displaced places occur in everybody's life. One feels their absence actively, like a child's tongue probing for a lost first tooth.
The present cannot be seen in its fullness without the past - we take this adage literally in the case of Boston. So, toward the end of November, when it gets too cold for long walks, we'll start looking, as usual, at old pictures of Boston, full of horses in the streets - generations earlier than memory can reach.
Does this make us guilty of living in the past? We plead innocent.
We also like Boston present. We expect to like Boston future. But life is full of missing pieces - an ideal realized and forgotten or maybe not yet realized. Buildings express this. And who wouldn't love, by an act of archaeological magic, to put all the statements in stone together at once?
Like Jules Verne characters, we all live where we live - and then look behind and beneath for something more, our own lost city of Atlantis.